Monday, July 27

Humpty Dumpty Jr: Hardboiled Detective

Case #1: The Case of the Fiendish Flapjack Flop
written by Nate Evans and Paul Hindman
illustrated by Vince Evans and Nate Evans
Sourcebooks / Jabberwocky 2008

A hardboiled detective series for the chapter book set is a welcome addition to the... wait. Aren't most chapter book series mysteries of one sort or another?

Yes, and with good reason. The mystery story has the opportunity to instantly engage a reader. It makes them feel smart as they puzzle through the clues and watch the hero attempt to solve the mystery before falling in the clutches of the evil villain. In this case, responding to a distress call HD finds Miss Patty Cake has been kidnapped, her secret recipes stolen. But before our hero can get on the case he is accosted by by a street urchin named Rat who thinks HD has kidnapped his morning meal ticket. They join an uneasy alliance, collect clues, and hit the case hard. With the Humpty Dumpty Jr series we have the added benefit of puns. Our hero is a good egg who can be counted on to crack the case and leave no yolk untouched.

There's a lot packed into this series, perhaps just a bit too much. Giving us characters straight from nursery rhymes is fine, if familiar (c.f. Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy for an adult version of this same sort of theme), and blending it with the hardboiled noir stories of Raymond Chandler set loose in New Yolk is fine, but when blended with mythological and other anthropomorphic animals surrounded by humans, well, it feels like one element too far. Does the precinct captain need to be a minotaur, and does the police chief need to be a rhino? And how do they fit in with the rest of the fairy tale characters like Little Jack Horner and the Queen of Hearts?

And while I can appreciated replacing guns of traditional detective stories with a magic egg beater and a magic pinwheel, the introduction of this element gives the book a fantasy turn that turns the whole mess runny. Kids who can appreciate the humor of the genre would just as easily understand water pistols filled different liquids that could have destructive effects to various characters. In fact, HD does resort to milk-filled balloons to fell a cake dragon into a soggy mess. But having the egg beater change things uncontrollably, or to have the pinwheel freeze people with the coolness of peppermint candy dilutes the hardboiled atmosphere. Some genres and settings just can't be blended successfully. Moonraker, anyone? Was there anything more ridiculous than Bond in space?

Recently the question was raised about introducing satire or parodies of genres that younger readers wouldn't likely to be familiar with. The argument was that without understanding the point of reference the point of the humor was lost. The counter argument is that the satire plants the seeds, that when readers are older they'll get the joke. Sort of like watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and not getting what Humphrey Bogart is doing begging for spare change until you see Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I would have to say that in order for the humor to be appreciated down the road the satire must be impeccably faithful. The goal is for the reader to one day have an "a ha!" moment that ties them back to their original experience with a fondness and a newer appreciation. If the derivative material is weak, when the reader comes to experience the source they come to feel betrayed.

Watch a kid's reaction when they encounter Lord of the Rings after Harry Potter and learn the subtle difference between homage and borrowing.

All of this to say that I think kids at the chapter book stage would truly enjoy a clever series that mirrors Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade a little more closely. Kids love mysteries and that includes trying to solve them, unlike with HD Jr. where Rat withholds evidence until it's expedient for him to "suddenly remember" something new. The reader should be able to connect dots and make guesses beyond vague recollection of villains in the first few pages who might have escape prison but have to do extensive monologuing toward the end in order to explain their motives.

For readers sharp enough to catch the puns, and like a little more humor than an A to Z Mystery can deliver, but find The Time Warp Trio intimidating this just might do the trick.
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